The Power of The Dog (2021)
Written & Directed by Jane Campion
Jane Campion is a shameful blindspot in my personal film viewing. I’ve only previously seen her brilliant television mini-series Top of the Lake. My expectations for this one were on the positive to neutral side of things. I strongly dislike Benedict Cumberbatch in most things, and so his prominent presence in the marketing made me a tad wary. But I saw it popping up on so many best-of-the-year lists that I knew I should sit down and watch it. I had absolutely zero idea what the plot was and even who the other actors in the film were. That absence of knowledge benefited me greatly because this is one of the most deceptively chilling movies I’ve seen in a long time, a Western noir that completely floored me in its third act.
Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) is seething when he learns his brother George (Jesse Plemmons) has taken a wife. The woman is Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widow of a local doctor who runs the town’s inn. Phil has a run-in with Rose’s teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who he homophobically mocks. Something about Phil’s way of life feels threatened by this intrusion; he’s used to surrounding himself with ranch hands who implore him for wisdom. This knowledge of rustling cattle and running the farm was imparted to Phil from the late “Bronco” Henry, a master rancher who profoundly impacted every aspect of Phil’s life. The film slowly reveals that this influence is far beyond a professional capacity. Tension keeps ratcheting up on the Burbank ranch as Phil openly mocks Rose’s timid demeanor and intensifying alcoholism. It’s clear this story will only end in tragedy.
Campion has delivered a story that blends tension & sensuality so masterfully. From the opening, you feel your hands gripping the arms of your chair, the anger roiling inside Phil ever-present. He seems to get momentary glee from tormenting the people he believes are trespassing on sacred ground. But in private, he’s an extremely different person, deeply vulnerable, terrified of someone seeing him in this state. You would not be blamed for feeling adrift in the first act; this movie is taking its time. By the end, you’ll reflect on that opening piece as essential to the overall story. We must have these tiny moments with characters before the film’s central conflict overtakes the screen. Thus when the ultimate tragedy occurs, and the full depth of how far people will go to protect another is revealed, you’ll be left stunned. This is a movie about people protecting other people and how far they will go to do it.
There’s never a moment where you could equivocally state who is in power in a relationship; that torch is constantly being handed off. The moment Phil appears to have humiliated Rose, we have him chastised into silence by George. The minute George begins to push forward in his happy life with Rose, Phil emerges to sully everything. When Peter returns from medical school, the dynamics have their most dramatic shift. Phil goes from antagonizing to seeing a relationship with Peter as a beautiful wedge to drive between a mother and son. However, he ultimately warms to the boy, seeing a reflection of his mentorship under Bronco Henry. Deep psychosexual tension and comments on gender roles are so subtly woven through every inch of this picture. When you get caught up in it all, it can literally be breathtaking.
There’s ultimately very little to the script; stepping back, you can see this is a very rudimentary setup and pay off. The power comes out of the performances and Campion’s choices as a director. She adopts a very meditative view of the events, letting great silences play out, and the camera catches moments often from a distance. The desolate setting evokes a primal sense; we’re hearing an archetypal story, just the version that took place in 1925. When the full scope of Montana (played by New Zealand) is shown, you suddenly see how minuscule these characters feel, yet when the camera chooses to get closer, there seems to be nothing else in the universe outside of this singular story.
Campion feels extremely confident in her work. She feels no pressure from other elements in contemporary cinema to hurry things along or soften the edges. Instead, her agenda with the film appears to be an audience interrogation about character presentation and reality. We so often mentally sum up fictional characters as soon as they are introduced and along the way are possibly surprised by a twist here & there. But there is so much you won’t know about these people until the final scene, and the way that revelation ripples through the entire story should leave you reeling. Gruffness does not denote evil, just as meekness does not translate to weak. The Power of The Dog sees to unsettle, and it achieves that, no clear heroes or villains, just people doing what they believe has to be done.